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Old 19th February 2005, 17:10
Christer Bergström Christer Bergström is offline
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Christer Bergström is on a distinguished road
"often veterans tend to 'colourise' their stories"

Indeed. One has to take all personal accounts with a grain of salt, but to completely dismiss personal accounts without very strong reasons would be to go too far.

Both personal accounts and official reports from the Eastern Front seem to be more (unconsciously) tainted by prejudices than what is the case in most other combat zones in World War II. The intense political brainwashing regarding their Soviet opponents ("Untermenschen incapable of anything good") which the German soldiers were subjected to, naturally coloured their appraisal of the enemy. After the war, this was to some extent inherited by the Cold War propaganda language - not least due to the influence by the reports by old Wehrmacht officers which the West studied carefully in order to "learn what the Germans had learned about the Soviets".

In our little society (English speaking WW II aviation nuts in the West), Toliver's and Constable's book "Horridoh" has had a huge impact on many people's basic concept on the air war in the East. In this book, we are taught that "the gunsight in the Soviet fighters often was nothing else than a hand painted circle on the windscreen". (Which is absolutely false; the Soviets had quite modern reflector gunsights.) Although the authors try to balance a generally negative view of the Soviet Air Force and its accomplishments, they miss such important things as the fact that the Soviets brought into use the most rapidly firing aircraft machine gun of the war and that they pioneered the use of rocket projectiles.

Discussing this topic still creates ridiculously infected discussions, particularly when these discussions involve people from Eastern countries with personal aversion against the former Soviet oppressors. I know that people in the East are esxtremely divided in their view on the USSR. It is my impression that most of them are happy to be rid of the Soviets, but they neutrally admit the technical accomplishments of the USSR at the same time as they neutrally are aware of the flaws in the technical field. Then there are two extreme groups - one which paints everything which has to do with the USSR in black and is unable to admit any accomplishment by "those dumb Soviet people" (quite similar to the Nazi Untermenschen propaganda), and one which attempts to glorify everything which has to do with the USSR (consciously adopting old Soviet propaganda).

In this jungle of contradicting statements and passionate outbursts, we in our little society are supposed to understand the true nature of the air war on the Eastern Front. . .

My personal conclusion, after studying the air war on the Eastern Front from both sides and listening to veterans from both sides for many years, is that the Soviets produced some of the lowest quality on the Allied side in WW II, and at the same time they also produced some of the highest quality on the Allied side in WW II. And that complicates the whole thing even further! (In this situation, it is easy for anyone from either of the two extreme sides which I described above to just pick whatever suits their version and leave whatever doesn't suit their version.)

Even "in the middle" - outisde these extremist camps - there is confusion. One attempt to an analyse stated unhesitatingly that the Germans were "psychologically superior" to the Soviets. (Toliver/Constable, "Das waren die deutschen Jagdfliegerasse", p. 266.)

Possibly as a reaction against this stereotype, the team of writers around German aviation historian Jochen Prien recently has counterposed with the opposite thesis. They dismiss “die Rede, dass die Abschüsse im Osten 1941 im Vergleich zu denen an der Westfront ‘leichter’ zu erzielen gewesen seien“ simply as “a legend.” (Prien et al, "Die Jagdfliegerverbände der Deutschen Luftwaffe 1934 bis 1945", Teil 6/I, p. 25.) Instead, Prien et al attempt to present the large number of Soviet aircraft encountered in the air as a major explanation to the huge amount of success attained by German fighter pilots on the Eastern Front. This assumption, that numerical inferiority in itself is an advantage, of course meets little support from those who actually took part in the air war. It is a fact - supported by facts which can't be dismissed and acknowledged by those who flew on the Eastern Front on both sides in 1941 - that the qualitative gap between the Luftwaffe and the Soviet Air Force was larger than that between the Luftwaffe and the RAF or the French Air Force in 1940 – 1941. It is a matter of examining the reasons to this, not trying to deny it.

Speaking of personal statements by Germans who flew on the Eastern Front, they range from a few accounts clearly coloured by the effect of intense propaganda (like "the Russians flew like the first men on earth") to what seems to be denial of any flaws on the Soviet side (possibly as a reaction to the wartime tendency to dismiss air victories on the Eastern Fronts as "easy"). I suspect that this statement made by JG 51's Hans Strelow on 28 November 1941 is motivated by the latter:

"Die Ansicht, die zuerst bei den Stäben und jetzt wohl auch in der Heimat verbreitet ist, dass die Abschüsse in Russland viel leichter und ungefährlicher waren als in der anderen Feldzügen, da die Abschussziffern so ungewohnt sind. Zugegeben, die Abschüsse in den ersten vier Wochen waren leichter. Aber dann lernte der Russe so unwahrscheinlich schnell dazu, wie es der Engländer bis heute nicht gekonnt hat." (Jägerblatt 3/1963.)

My conclusion is that throughout the war, the Soviets had a larger number of top class pilots than the RAF or the USAAF had by the same time, and that some of the Soviet war material was of absolute top class. It also is my conclusion that the Soviet Air Force eventually gained on the German qualitative lead, and by the end of the war there probably was no better air force than the Soviet Air Force.

I am absolutely convinced that at any given period would no other air force than precisely the Luftwaffe have been able to stand up with such effect against the Soviet Air Force. If Hitler had been equipped with the RAF or the US Air Force (and its men, doctrines and machines) in 1941 (instead of the Luftwaffe and its men, doctrines and machines), he would not have been able to achieve such accomplishments against the Soviet Air Force. Exchange 1941 for any other year between 1941 and 1945, and the result will be the same. This may surprise some, but it is a fact that from 1941 onward, the cream of the Luftwaffe was in action against the Soviets. The Allies never encountered the level of oppositions in the air which the Soviets had to endure from the very first day.

Returning to statements by individual pilots, it is interesting to listen to those Germans who fought both in the West and in the East, i.e. who were in a position to compare the Soviets with the Western Allies. What almost all of them say when I have made interviews with them, is that the Soviets improved quickly, and soon even surpassed the quality of the Western Allies. It always is nice not only when sources are given, but also when people are able to verify the source - so here I give one statement made to another researcher: Josef Unverzagt, who flew with JG 77 against the RAF and the USAAF in 1944 and against the Soviet Air Force in 1945, is quoted making the following comparison between the RAF and the USAAF in 1944 on one hand and the Soviet Air Force in 1945:

"Die Zahl der Gegner [in the East] war in der Masse weniger als im Westen, die Qualität der Jäger aber durch ausgesuchte Einheiten oft besser." (Prien, "JG 77", p. 2277; I am sure Mr. Prien will gladly provide anyone who wants to check his sources with a copy of the letter in question, since that is the essence of mentioning sources.)

I hope this posting will not provoke any heated debate from either of the extreme camps. It is not my intention to provoke anyone. I feel that the subject is important, and only because some people have a problem with the topic, we should not impose any self-censoring. After all, it is only a hobby, and as far as I know, no one of us is a professional historian, no one of us approaches the subject with the methods of a professional historian. We deal with this as merry amateurs and only because of fun, and let's keep it there.

All best,

Christer Bergström
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